wed 10/08/2022

The Rivals, Southwark Playhouse | reviews, news & interviews

The Rivals, Southwark Playhouse

The Rivals, Southwark Playhouse

Sheridan's arch, playful classic has an Absolute knockout central performance

'Tis the season to be jolly. Or, if you're a small theatre and choose not to stoop to panto, time perhaps to be a little light, anyway, tickle some tastebuds. Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The Rivals (1775) is his best-known play, followed by The School for Scandal and The Critic. In his early twenties when he wrote The Rivals (and then, after its first London outing was howled down, rewrote it), Sheridan spawned a skittish, playful, self-consciously silly classic, arch and brilliant.

And by jingo, wordy. In Jessica Swale's new production for the Red Handed Theatre Company, at the Southwark Playhouse, the cast sultrily lulls the audience, before the lights are dimmed, away from any thoughts of verbal concentration - the actors mooch about, in approximately decorative late-18th-century garb, wink at the front row, flirt, offer them nuts, chat, offer more nuts and wink again. There are music and singing. It's all very casual, cool and anti-theatrical. Unfortunately, as soon as the text is delivered, cool becomes lexically contorted caper. The Rivals is, today, more about close listening, in a kind of socio-historical decoding, than dramatically arresting entertainment.

It's a stupid story. Nice upper-class card Jack Absolute fancies a novel-reading girly, Lydia Languish, in Bath, but to titillate her sentimental fantasies woos her as indigent Beverley (Wilde must have borrowed something here for his Jack/Ernest double in his most famous play). Lydia's friend Julia Melville is soft on foppish idiot Faulkland, and a rather asinine love wins out in the end. Lydia's aunt, the infamous Mrs Malaprop, is determined to forge an alliance between her niece and her toff friend Sir Anthony Absolute's (real) son Jack, but becomes confused, like everyone else, including the audience, at the shadowy "Beverley", who ends up being challenged to a duel by two more idiots, rivals - indeed - for Lydia's affection, Bob Acres and Sir Lucius O'Trigger.

Through large passages of the play, one’s will to live is violently stretched. Yet to her credit, Swale has kept things simple, because she has to: the Southwark stage is long and thin, the audience is on raked seating, close to the action, and little will escape even the most bored eye, or ear. Luckily, she has some really fine acting to save what is otherwise an interpretatively dim production.

As Malaprop, Celia Imrie is excluded from the above accolade. Famous from TV - Victoria Wood’s Dinnerladies, Cranford etc - and film - Calendar Girls, St Trinian’s - she cuts an attractive, bosomy swathe in her big dress, and has expert facial skills, winking amongst them, but strangely does the opposite of filling the part. She gabbles, glides over the malapropisms (too wearying to recite here) and seems to shy away from being large.

By contrast, and not to do her a discourtesy, Ella Smith, of Dawn French girth, is wonderful as Julia, with a voice of purple-plum richness: she’s unaffectedly funny. Robin Soans is also punchy and funny as the martinet Sir Anthony. As Lydia, Charity Wakefield is poised and, well, precisely girly. The only person who seems to get the joke of the play, its ludic absurdity, is Harry Hadden-Paton. As Jack Absolute, he swaggers, teases and is even romantically sincere in a bravura, intelligent performance which threatens to make this show a must.

Hadden-Paton is an actor to watch. If everyone else in the cast marched to his tune, then this Rivals might be unrivalled; as it is, it kind of works, but I fear the charming studio space of the Southwark Playhouse keeps it far too tame, too - charming.

Share this article


I went to see this on the 15th Jan (I believe opening night) and thought it was absolutly fantastic!. Having not been to the Southwark Playhouse before I wasnt sure what to expect, but after purchasing tickets online I trotted on down and collected them at the 'Box Office' before wondering around the corner to the bar which was a small, dark but fantasticly atmospheric room with wooden chairs, candles and a small bar on the far side. After a short while a young lady jumped onto a small raised area and annouced 'the house was now open'. Slowley we all wondered through, some still clutching drinks and took our seats on the raised seating area in rows of approx 12, just meters from the stage (even when sitting at the back). After a short while we saw members of the cast arrive and mingle with the front row, giving them props, offering them sweets and more and then taking there places for the opening act. The whole performance I though was fantastic, with a brilliant intimacy that made it feel like a private performance in a unique venue in one of the arches. I cannot recommend this highly enough. As an admirer of Charity Wakefield I thought she was great and brought her usual grace, charm and cheekyness to the performance, but you simply cannot single out any key performances as every performer brought somthing to the performance, with Jack make a real impact in my mind also. All I can say is get your tickets now!!! Also if your a Charity Fan click the url to join the facebook page.

I don't get theatre critics. Their reviews never seem to reflect those of the audience . I went yesterday (16th Jan) with my daughter to see The Rivals. if the length and volume of the applause at the end of the show is a guide to whether it was a success or not, then this production was terrific. The cast were excellent, with Harry Hadden-Paton in particular being very watchable. He was clearly having great fun. Celia Imrie was excellent and grew in stature as the play progressed with her verbal 'accidents' causing great amusement in the audience. The whole show was a joy from beginning to end although, a word of caution. Sitting in the front row should carry a health and safety warning!

This is a fantastic production. It goes at a fair old pace which keeps you on your toes so that you don't miss all the wit and jokes. I especially enjoyed the performances of Harry Hadden-Paten and Charity Wakefield. In fact the whole cast's enthusiasm was infectious. The set was simple but effective in such a small theatre. The use of pages of text to decorate the furniture and to create paper flowers was an inspired touch. In conclusion i highly recommend this fun-packed show.

Brilliant five-star production. What more do you want, jaded critics?!

What an infectiously enthusiastic group of actors! The cast, lead by the wonderful Celia Imrie and Robin Soans who both delivered excellently timed and articulate performances, are a joy to watch. We went to see this production early in its run last Thursday and thoroughly enjoyed the entire performance. Jessica Swale's direction is refreshingly upbeat as are this fine cast - a strong group of highly talented and commendable actors who deliver their lines with great skill and gusto, never letting go of their audience, or lines, from start to finish. Moments of light and shade, humour and pathos - it's a testament to Sheridan's talent that The Rivals has stood the test of time and can be so 'perpendicularly' enjoyed in 2010. Not unsurprisingly tickets are almost sold out for the remainder of the run. The production is much deserving of a greater audience so here's hoping it makes it to the West End - if it doesn't, be sure not to miss this run at The Southwark Playhouse!

Add comment


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters